A doctor is attending to patients online through telemedicine app. Source: AFP

A doctor is attending to patients online through telemedicine app. Source: AFP

Coronavirus could push the virtual healthcare market into the mainstream

As the coronavirus outbreak shows no real signs of abating, businesses and industries are exploring new ways of working that lessen the impact of disruption and risk of contagion.

Avoiding in-person contact is one solution. That’s seeing more pressure on businesses to adopt remote working styles to continue operations ‘as normal’, while the events industry – pressured to postpone conferences and gathering indefinitely – is exploring virtual platforms to bring attendees together in cyberspace. 

This fledgling sector both relieves hospital staff and provides patients – from their own homes – access to a wider pool of healthcare consultants. 

The spread of the coronavirus could help to highlight the case for the further development of virtual healthcare or ‘telemedicine’ in the months to come. Providers, ranging from Asian tech giants Tencent and Alibaba to established medical facilities like Shanghai’s Xuhui Central Hospital, have reported an incredible surge in demands since January.

Alibaba has revealed that its Ali Health app, hosting over 1,000 doctors, received over 3,000 consultation requests per hour. 

Meanwhile, Tencent’s Wedoctor, shared that the thousands of doctors on its platforms had served up to 1.5 million consultation services by the end of February.

While the former two are fairly new, Xuhui Central Hospital, has been in the telemedicine industry since 2015. What started as an experiment, has now been verified and licensed by China’s government as a “cloud hospital”.

A top official of the hospital Zhou Jian told AsiaOne: “It doesn’t matter where you are, as long as you have a mobile phone and a signal, you can have a face-to-face medical consultation with our doctors.”

Xuhui Central offers an extensive list of doctors ranging from dermatologists to pediatrics who attend to these online patients via computers in equipped cubicles at the hospital itself.

Patients simply have to download the hospital’s app, wait in the queue and then be directed to another channel for a brief consultation session. Later, patients will be either be told to get some well-deserved rest or prescribed with medications that can be attained online as well, which can be delivered to patients’ homes for free. 

Additionally, the government has also shown support for e-consultations by allowing patients to use their national medical insurance to cover online healthcare services bills.

Such services will definitely revolutionize healthcare and online service markets in the long-term. One thing is for sure, with less physical visits, hospital staff will have a lighter workload – particular in the face of a pandemic – and can drive greater efficiency across all departments.

As of March 8, the hospital online service platform has had over 5,000 patients, up from zero in February. Patients are clearly in favor of getting treatments from the comfort of their homes, especially when the physical environment is unfavorable.

In the future, it will be highly like that telemedicine will grow even in the absence of viral epidemic outbreaks. Although it was never really a prominent market in the first place, the current global health climate has given it a much-needed push.